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Captains out, Zerfing back in at Cascade Locks Fire

August 17, 2011

CASCADE LOCKS - Jess Zerfing was appointed fire chief Monday in a special meeting of the City Council.

The council took action less than a week after Zerfing quit the volunteer association and turned in his pager and cellphone, and three volunteers appointed themselves captains and in charge of the department.

The other fire chiefs in the county are meanwhile awaiting a letter from the City of Cascade Locks establishing that it has a qualified commander in place.

The chiefs had met Monday with the three captains and had worked out a plan to work together and get the department back into good standing regarding its mutual aid agreements, according to Jim Trammell, chief of the County Fire Defense Board. Those are reciprocity agreements between departments, to provide command personnel as well as support personnel and equipment to other departments where needed. (See details at the end of this story.)

Without that letter, the other fire districts in the county will rescind their mutual aid agreements with Cascade Locks on Aug. 19, according to Trammell. The chiefs had informed Cascade Locks July 14 that the city had 30 days to state municipal support of the fire department to avoid mutual aid cancellation.

"I don't think the council really understands the seriousness of this situation," said Shawn Parrish, one of the three self-appointed captains, along with Jessica Bennett and Megan Webb.

Mayor George Fischer said, "I think it's going to be a transition period. I don't think its going to be easy but it will work out in the end. I think people want things to start working forward, and have an attitude of 'What can I do ho help you today' situation instead of pondering what's been going on."

Asked about the prospect of volunteers not respond to calls, he said, "We just have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis."

City Recorder Kathy Woosley said she was scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Zerfing to draft the letter to the other chiefs.

(Council also learned Monday that Eric Strahl has withdrawn his name from consideration for the city administrator position; City Council had approved his hiring last month. The city has been without a chief appointed officer for just over a month, following the departure of Rich Carson, who was hired as interim administrator in February. Carson served after the resignation of former administrator Bernard Seeger. Strahl, who lives in Michigan, could not be reached for comment. )

A week ago, the Cascade Locks volunteers took a unanimous vote of no-confidence in Zerfing, who had been assistant chief, in a special meeting in which Zerfing was present, according to Bennett. She said 11 of the 14 current members of the department voted in person or by phone, and Zerfing resigned on the spot. (Two members of the association could not attend the meeting.)

The building access codes were changed after Zerfing's resignation, meaning that the appointed chief does not currently have access to the building, according to Parrish.

Zerfing was unavailable for comment. His phone number of record has been disconnected, family members and Fischer could not be reached, and as of Tuesday City Hall staff have no working phone number for reaching Zerfing, according to Woosley.

Fischer said Tuesday that the council "agreed that Jess Zerfing is still the fire chief and that we're going to be sending a letter to Jim Trammell saying that (Zerfing) is, in fact, the chief."

Fischer said, "The council is saying he is the person in charge of the Cascade Locks Fire Department and we're going to be doing an investigation into the vote of no confidence."

When asked what that investigation would entail, Fischer replied, "what they had done and if their reasons were based on fact."

Bennett said Aug. 9 that Zerfing "was doing things that were not in accordance with how a good leader should act. He is a terrific firefighter and EMT, and we asked him to stay on in that capacity, but he chose not to."

Trammell said Tuesday that Monday's meeting with the captains was apparently "moot."

"We want to get this resolved before Aug. 19," Trammell said. He said the chiefs reviewed and agreed with the captains' operations plan, which included a duty shift present at the station at all times, and command support at incidents for mutual aid where possible.

He said, "We're not going to demand reciprocity; just ask them to get the department back in shape, get your questions answered and we can go on and help you."

Trammell said, "We discussed the situation when (the captains) left yesterday and we felt we had resolution; but apparently they can't speak for the city so none of it had any effect.

"We listened to their plan, their plan, determined it was substantial enough, and if we got a letter from the city recognizing the fire district we would consider rescinding the mutual aid cancellation.

"If Jess writes us saying can do the same thing, fine, we just need a letter from city council and mayor," Trammell said.

In a letter to Fischer on Aug. 15, the defense board wrote, in part, "If the Hood River County Fire Defense Board authorizes the continuance of our Mutual Aid agreements it will be with the express knowledge that the agreements can be terminated without notice for cause at any time the Chiefs determine Cascade Locks is not fulfilling their responsibilities.

"The Hood River County Fire Defense Board applauds the fire fighters for putting the safety of the public above politics."

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